Sport 39: 2011
The Night Cyclists
As I walk home it’s dark and the night cyclists are out. They zip and bob down the Old South Road like erratic, slightly spastic fireflies. I wonder why they want to do that to themselves. Why they want to slide down gravel blind, when they could just do it in daylight.
The path to our house is to the left of the green shed, and there are none of those fancy garden lights following the jagged edges down. I make do with what little the moon offers, shuffling my feet over the uneven tarmac, my arms slightly raised in front.
I latch onto safety—the doorknob to the side entry of Dad’s garage—and flick the lights on inside. A hum starts up and the hanging bulbs slowly brighten. In the middle of the shed is the whale’s ribcage—the skeleton of Dad’s boat. There is something indecent about its bare bones, or perhaps that they have been bare for so long.
Dad started building the boat almost eleven years ago, in the hopes that through our teenage years our family would have many outings in it. Mum didn’t stick around to find out, and my sister moved to Australia a few years after that.
I walk to the opposite door and turn the lights off on the garage and what it houses. In the hallway there is a burnt smell which gets stronger as I near the kitchen. I head straight to the stove-top: the dark curry in the pan has crusty edges that have bubbled until dry—Dad’s attempt at dinner. I get the Weetbix from the pantry and crush two bricks into a bowl, cover with milk and sugar. ‘Hey Dad,’ I say, plonking myself next to him on the couch.
‘Hi love. Good day?’
‘Mmm,’ I say, working on a mouthful of cereal.
‘Heard from your sister today. She’s going to Melbourne next week for the summer.’
The summer. Another history student had asked me what I waspage 221 doing for the holidays. When I told her she gave me a sort of limp look—most other students were going overseas, or heading up north to the beaches, not going home to look after their Dad.
‘Working on the boat tonight, Dad?’ I’m facing him but his eyes remain fixed on the TV.
‘Not sure what she’s going to get up to in Melbourne, but I guess she’ll have a good time.’
Maybe Dad doesn’t even hear it anymore, but to me my unanswered question sits between us on the couch like a big stinking elephant, its huge arse squashing us into the hard arms of the sofa. I try to think of how to bring up the email he’d sent two days ago.
‘How was work?’
‘Another day, same as always.’
‘Why don’t you apply for something else? There’s loads you can do.’
‘Too old, love. No one wants to hire a fifty-year-old.’ He lowers his head, busies his fingers with the mug in his hands.
It’s hard to keep this up. His emails are more lucid. I guess it’s easier to be honest when you’re not face to face. But it always ends in the same way—too old, too late, no hope. It’s not what he used to be like. I finish the emails the way I always do—I tell him he has two beautiful daughters he’s raised and can be proud of—and I hope that will be enough.
Lying in bed that night I think about how things might have been different if Dad had finished the boat. Would Mum still be here? Would we be the kind of family who spent their weekends together? I think about her new family in Australia. Her new husband, new kids. I wonder if she often thinks of us. If she wonders how we are doing.
Dad’s boat appears in my mind—the dead whale. I can’t get to sleep with it right in my face. It’s hot in the room, my skin clammy under the thin sheet. The whale’s frame zooms in closer. It gets bigger and bigger until I feel so small in the bed, so dwarfed by the carcass, I get up for a glass of water.
By Friday night I’ve mowed the lawns, Dad’s finished work and when we go and get fish and chips it’s dark. We walk home side by side, me, hood up, holding the steaming package close to my chest. The night cyclists are at it again, heading to the trails.
I turn my head to Dad and look hard at him, wondering what he is thinking as he watches them whiz by. I see an old man and it suddenly frightens me. His eyes are a milky blue and seem to stare straight through things.
I feel furious at the cyclists. It’s as if Dad is standing on the edge of a cliff and he’s meant to jump but can’t, and all these other smart alecs are running and diving off the cliff right next to him.
Dad and I stand on the cliff’s crumbly lip, looking down, the sea so far below us, rushing and crashing on the rocks. I put my arm through his, the soggy parcel at my chest in danger of tearing now—the fried golden mess erupting out the bottom onto the ground.
I don’t know how long we stand there, but sometimes that’s just what daughters will have to do—stand there quietly, hoping he can feel my warm body next to his, my hand resting on his own, wishing for him to do something, anything; for a switch to flick and he not just feel but steal away all the love I’ve got inside, my heart on fire—tear it out—and pack it deep inside his chest, underneath all the ash and wire, this burning smouldering thing—keep it all for himself and just let me go.